Pastoral leadership in dysfunctional congregations : a family systems approach toward wholeness
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Many churches in America today are experiencing extreme levels of stress and conflict. One survey concluded that at any given time more than 30,000 Protestant churches in the United States are in serious conflict. This equates to about one church in twelve in serious conflict. At the same time, there is a growing body of knowledge in the field of family systems theory that can assist a person's managing of his/her life in a way that can influence these congregations toward a higher level of functioning. The purpose of this project was to discern the potential benefit to parish pastors involved in a limited experiential process using family systems theory as the basis for teaching and interpreting their family of origin issues for personal growth.
The Preface to the paper provides an example of a highly anxious and low functioning church. It is a true story not unlike those of many churches in America today. It provides a point of reference for the first chapter which introduces a family systems view or theory as a model for interpreting the behavior of congregations and their members. Though systems theory is a broad concept, the focus here is on the theory as developed by Murray Bowen. All the major concepts of the theory, as developed by Bowen, Kerr, Friedman, Steinke, Richardson, and others, are presented.
Since Bowen's theory is based on an evolutionary biological model of living organisms and since the church from the beginning has been a living entity, the theory has been used to interpret and explain life within churches and synagogues. To further develop this understanding of the congregation as a living being in relationship to a living God, the second chapter was devoted to a study of Scriptural passages describing the actions of the church as a living organism, especially the "body of Christ," and related passages. With a focus on healthy functioning, events in the lives of significant Biblical characters were explored.
The third chapter describes a project in which clergy were asked to participate in a limited number of small group sessions over a 4-6 month period. The sessions involved some interactive teaching about natural family systems theory and, after having done some family of origin exploration, each participant presented a genogram of his family to the group for processing, utilizing natural family systems concepts. The hypothesis was that this process would contribute to each participant's maturing process and enhance the capacity to higher functioning, especially in highly anxious congregational settings. The consensus of the participants was that the process was beneficial.